Dobie Gray Dies From Cancer Surgery Complications
(BlackDoctor.org) — Dobie Gray, a versatile singer and songwriter who had a handful of hits in various pop genres but who was probably best known for his enduring 1973 soul anthem, “Drift Away,” a wistful paean to all songwriters and their songs, died on Tuesday in Nashville. He was believed to be 71.
The cause was complications of cancer surgery, said his friend and fellow songwriter George Reneau.
Mr. Gray, who sang and wrote songs in a range of styles including rhythm-and-blues, country, disco and gospel, had his first Top 20 hit in 1965 with “The ‘In’ Crowd,” an upbeat hymn to hipness that captured the social restlessness of the time. Written by Billy Page and based on an idea suggested by Mr. Gray, the song struck a special chord in the music industry and was performed by many others, including the Ramsey Lewis Trio (whose 1965 instrumental version was an even bigger hit than Mr. Gray’s), Petula Clark, the Mamas and the Papas, Lawrence Welk and the Chipmunks.
Management problems left Mr. Gray without much to show for his early success, he told Billboard in 1974. He said he received no royalties for “The ‘In’ Crowd.” With his recording career stalled, he spent two years in the cast of the Los Angeles production of “Hair” in the late 1960s.
“Drift Away” was recorded in 1973 after Mr. Gray, attempting a comeback, secured a contract with MCA Records. He was teamed with the songwriter and producer Mentor Williams (the brother of Paul Williams), who had produced it for another artist with no success.
Mr. Gray’s strong, raspy tenor, schooled by years of gospel choir duty as a child in the Texas Baptist church where his grandfather was minister, gave Mr. Williams’s song the soulful treatment it apparently needed, sending it to No. 5 on the Billboard charts that year and carving a permanent place for it in later years on oldies radio.
While recording “Drift Away,” he felt a lot of pressure, Mr. Gray said in a 1988 interview with The Tennessean of Nashville. It had been a long time since his last hit and it seemed as if his career was in the balance. “I was pulling my hair out,” he said.
Mr. Gray’s early life is not well documented. Different sources give the year of his birth as 1940, 1942 or 1943, though all agree on the date of Sept. 26. His given name has been reported as Leonard Victor Ainsworth and Lawrence Darrow Brown. By all accounts he was born into a sharecropper family outside Houston, in Brookshire or Simonton, Tex.
Mr. Reneau said that as far as he knew Mr. Gray, who never married, was 71, and that his survivors included a sister and a brother. No immediate family member could be reached. In interviews, Mr. Gray credited his Baptist minister grandfather with sparking his interest in singing.
Mr. Gray left Texas in the early 1960s for Los Angeles, where he worked with Sonny Bono, then an executive with Specialty Records. He made several records under the names Leonard Ainsworth, Larry Curtis and Larry Dennis. He adopted the name Dobie Gray sometime before he recorded his first hit, “Look at Me,” in 1963.
After his career was revived by “Drift Away,” Mr. Gray used his fame to help support political causes. He campaigned for Jimmy Carter in his 1976 presidential race, and although he toured in Europe and Australia, he agreed to perform in South Africa only after winning a government dispensation allowing him to play before integrated audiences, according to his Web site.
Mr. Gray left Los Angeles for Nashville in 1978 and began writing and performing country music there. His singing career never took off in Nashville, but he became a prolific writer of songs for other artists, including John Conlee (“Got My Heart Set on You”), Ray Charles (“Over and Over, Again”), Julio Iglesias (“If I Ever Needed You”) and George Jones (“Come Home to Me”).
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